Opponents of gay rights law appear ready to halt efforts

Group, ACLU in talks to end petition suit

November 21, 2001|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A group that opposes Maryland's gay rights law appears poised to end its months-long fight to force a statewide referendum on the issue.

Lawyers for the group, TakeBackMaryland.org, and for gay rights advocates were in negotiations yesterday. The talks were focused on finding a graceful way for the group to give up its effort to put the gay rights law before voters next fall, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.

Neither side would comment publicly on the talks yesterday.

At issue is a law passed by the General Assembly this year to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations. It was to have taken effect Oct. 1.

But the state Board of Elections Supervisors concluded in July that the law's opponents had collected enough signatures to force a referendum next fall. The American Civil Liberties Union and gay rights advocacy groups went to court, arguing that many of the signatures appeared to be invalid.

A lawsuit filed in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court asserted that the proper process was not followed in gathering the signatures.

A court-appointed special master reviewed the 47,730 signatures and found that hundreds - more than enough to keep the referendum off the ballot - were gathered improperly and were potentially invalid.

More recently, lawyers for gay rights advocates collected sworn statements from petition circulators who acknowledged that they did not witness all the signatures they collected, as state law requires.

Each petition has spaces for 10 signers and a place for the petition's circulator to verify that he or she witnessed each person sign the document.

Some circulators acknowledged in depositions that they gave petitions to others to circulate and did not watch each person who signed them, according to lawyers in the case.

Lawyers for both sides, and for the state, which is defending the elections board's certification of the petitions, would not comment publicly on the settlement talks when contacted yesterday.

"All I can tell you is that discussions are ongoing," said Charles J. Butler, an attorney for gay rights advocates.

Brian Fahling, an attorney for TakeBackMaryland.org, and the Rev. Matt Sine, a leader of the group, also would not comment on the settlement talks.

A gay rights opponent who is not directly involved in the case said he was told by TakeBackMaryland.org leaders that the ACLU is using "intimidating tactics" to pressure them into dropping the legal fight over the referendum.

Peter J. LaBarbera, a senior policy analyst with the Culture and Family Institute, a conservative advocacy group, said the campaign has left honest people who made mistakes gathering signatures worried they might prosecuted on perjury charges.

"Who wants to be under the gun of litigation for months and months?" LaBarbera said. "They've got these people intimidated and afraid." Lawyers for both sides disputed his assertions.

"The fact is that the ACLU is not doing anything untoward here," said Fahling. "Any suggestion otherwise should be rejected."

The settlement talks came to light when the ACLU filed a letter in court yesterday saying that it was holding off on filing a motion for summary judgment. Through such motions, lawyers ask a judge to rule on a case based on the facts submitted instead of going to trial.

In the letter, Dwight H. Sullivan, a lawyer for ACLU-Maryland, stated that TakeBackMaryland.org had asked the group to delay filing the motion to allow each side more time for negotiations.

If the talks are not concluded by noon today, the motion will be filed, according to lawyers for both sides.

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